City Republic: oil, sandwiches and chocolate worries

Stephen Foster assesses the markets as the price of oil heads north again, Pret A Manger is looking ripe for takeover and Cadbury takes a beating.

$100 oil price hammers the markets
Just when you thought it was safe to go out again (financially speaking) something whacks you over the head.

Now it's oil.

The US Dow Jones Industrial Average went into sharp reverse yesterday when the oil price surged above $100 a barrel for the first time in real trading.

On top of this, some oil analysts were predicting that Opec producers might actually announce a cut in production at their next meeting on March 5.

This prediction, which seemed at first to defy all logic, was helped along by Opec president Chakib Khelil who said there was certainly no chance of an increase in production.

Earlier in the day, the Dow had forged ahead on better than expected figures from Wal-Mart (indicating that the US consumer hasn't entirely given up yet).

Why is the oil price up?

The usual suspects, including (another) US refinery fire, an ongoing row between Exxon Mobil (aka the US government) and left-wing Venezuela president Hugo Chavez and continued political uncertainty in Nigeria (as is the norm).

Mr Khelil may or may not be right. What's certain is that there will be formidable pressure on both Opec and non-Opec producers to increase production, not just from the US but also China, which is consuming ever-increasing amounts of the stuff.

HP surges on
I've no idea how much oil is required for the manufacture of computers but HP seems to reach new heights, whatever happens to the economy.

After Wall Street closed yesterday it announced that its quarterly net income to the end of January reached $2.13bn, up 38% on 2007.

Two thirds of HP's sales are outside the US but this still means it's selling a heck of a lot of computers to US companies and individuals.

An optimist might judge that this means the US economy isn't in quite such bad shape as it's supposed to be.

Before the oil price kicked the markets in the teeth, there was a growing feeling that analysts (most of whom are employed by the very banks which are currently writing off billions in sub-prime losses) were over-egging troubles in the real economy as they were assuming other companies were in as much trouble as the financial sector.

Bank of England governor Mervyn King said much the same thing after the bank cut interest rates modestly earlier this month, pointing out that people weren't nearly as gloomy outside London (home of the financial sector and City bonuses).

Well we'll see. The trouble with oil, of course, is that it is an essential component of the real economy.

Pret a Manger on the block
The Telegraph thinks buy-out firm Bridgepoint is going to bid for some or all of sandwich maker Pret a Manger, valuing the firm at between £300m and £350m.

Included in the deal will be McDonald's' 33% stake, controversially acquired a few years ago. Founders Julian Metcalf and Sinclair Beecham own most of the rest.

We all moan from time to time at the growing uniformity of the High Street (and indeed the Competition Commission makes a living by continually looking at the issue and deciding that it can't really do very much) but chains like Pret are useful, as indeed are Sainsbury's Locals for office workers who want to eat something at home at night.

But Pret will find it harder to get much bigger in the UK so it's probably wise of Messrs Metcalf and Beecham to cash in. 

Cadbury runs into trouble
It did in the City yesterday anyway.

Even though sales surged 7% (helped by that drumming gorilla no doubt) the company's profits slipped a bit and it annoyed shareholders by saying it wouldn't be handing them lots of cash when it spins off its Dr Pepper and 7-Up beverages division later this year.

On the face of it, this seems sensible as this "cash" isn't money Cadbury actually has, it would be money the independent beverage business had to borrow.

Launching the beverages business back on the US market with billions of debt would be risky in the extreme at the moment.

But the City threw a strop anyway and knocked 33p off the shares.

KKR feels the credit crunch pain
Kohlberg Kravis Roberts was one of the original buy-out firms, famously described as the "Barbarians at the Gates" in the 1980s as it laid siege to big conventional companies that thought they were immune from takeovers.

Just last summer it was considering an IPO that would have made the founders even richer.

But yesterday it delayed repayment of billions of dollars it had borrowed for the second time, presumably because of sub-prime woes.

It is now holding "restructuring" talks with creditors, who must be getting increasingly anxious about ever seeing their money again.

Back in September, as the firm's troubles first surfaced, two of the founders, Henry Kravis and George Roberts, personally chipped in to a $270m cash injection (this isn't in the private equity game plan at all).

It now looks as though even their wallets can't stretch far enough to cure the company's current woes.